Natalya Zima thought she could handle the cold.
Her hometown – Oymyakon, Russia – was attractive only to those with adventure-lust, nerves of steel, or the genes of a yak. With temperatures that reached -50°, its title as the “coldest year-round inhabited human settlement” was well deserved. Cars shivered in heated garages, glasses and saliva froze to the faces of the unwary, and no crops could be planted, so survival depended on a lovely diet of meat. To stay alive and pleasurably warm many residents turned to Russian Chai – “vodka” to the rest of the world. Most humans considered this frost pit as close to and as far from hell as possible.
To Natalya, it was home.
One hundred percent native, with one parent Yakutian and the other Russian, Natalya had inherited her mother’s dark complexion, beetle-black hair, and deep, dark eyes, like pools of ink. Her father’s long, angular face and spiked eyebrows gave her a visage of rationality and perseverance. Widely known as the most reliable teen in Oymyakon, it was her humble opinion that whatever came, she could handle it with panache. And then, one day, winter stole her best friend, her twin sister.
That afternoon, the girls were curled by the fireplace. Tay (as only Sofiya was allowed to call her) marked off answers to her schoolwork with quick, firm pen marks, Sofiya gazed rapturously into the flames. As Natalya tucked her papers away, she remembered that she was supposed to pick up fish in town before her parents arrived home from teaching at the university. Now, she would need to rush, trekking through snow and ice and numbing chill to the outhouse (might as well go if she was already outside), and then into town and back.
Natalya stood abruptly and moved to the door, where a small mountain of snow gear waited. Sofiya considered her twin with eerie eyes, the palest blue that Natalya – indeed anyone – had seen, like the sky before snow. Sofiya knew where her sister was without needing to see her. She claimed to sense Natalya’s aura of safety and comfort. Natalya never flinched at Sofiya’s vacant blue stare, like some of the townspeople did, but the intensity of her gaze made it feel like ice was creeping up Natalya’s back.
“Where are you going?”
“To pick up some fish at the shop.”
Sofiya blinked. She’d inherited more of their father – pale skin, bright eyes, hair so blonde it could be taken for silver.
They may have been twins, but Sofiya seemed younger, smaller, more delicate, her disability keeping her hidden from the outside world. Sofiya was often quiet and contemplative, and seemed to exist in her own world, where snow fell slowly in never-ending spirals.
“It’s so cold.” The pale girl pursed her lips. “I should come. I don’t like the idea of you going out-”
“That’s exactly why you shouldn’t come. You’d get disoriented in the snowdrifts or go the wrong way, and then we’d both freeze to death. I can’t carry the fish and guide you at the same time.”
Sofiya scowled. Her sister had a way of flashing from hot to cold, quiet to screaming, frenetically intelligent to creepily blank in seconds. Sofiya was strange, but Natalya loved her, no matter what.
“But I want to come, Tay!”
Natalya exhaled, pulling on snow pants, boots, two coats, scarves, two gloves, a muffler, and a hat. She wrapped scarf number three, a fierce red slash, around her face, muffling her next words.
“You want to wait outside the outhouse while I freeze my rear off? You want to trek to town and struggle home trying to hold on to frozen fish? You want to wade through so much snow you can barely hear your own footfalls, much less mine? It’s too dangerous. You could get lost. I can’t risk that.”
Sofiya turned silently to the window, something like longing in her gaze.
“All right. Please come back soon.”
It wasn’t like she could do anything else. Just minutes of exposure could result in frostbite, but worse would be Sofiya’s terror if she failed to return.
“Don’t let the cold goblins snatch you.”
Natalya scoffed while internally squashing flutters of fear.
Years before, when the twins’ mother explained the dangers of cold to the little girls, she told them that it came from goblins with long, pointy noses, needle-like fingers, and breath that froze everything. The demonic little monsters crept through the night, bringing ice and snow, and only in the spring would they slink off to their caves in the north. There, they waited greedily for the sun to fall from the sky, when they could descend upon the land again.
The story resonated with both girls for different reasons. Natalya hated it. From that night on, every time she ventured outdoors, she hurried, certain that she would see the obsidian eyes of a cold goblin peering at her. Now, being traumatized by a fairy tale seemed ridiculous. But in those eerie hours before night fell, she never liked to be alone, sure she was being watched by goblins at her window, salivating as they contemplated the innocent girl on the other side of the glass.
Sofiya loved the tale with an obsessive fascination. More than a decade later, during the worst storms of the year, Natalya would jump as Sofiya clenched her hand and whispered, “Something’s angered the goblins.” Natalya never responded, having long ago given up understanding why the innocent story captivated her so.
“Tay? Are you still here?”
“Oh, yes. I’ll be back soon. Don’t worry.”
Frigid wind shot into the house as Natalya opened the door, icy tendrils pulling her out. Most of survival depended on fighting the chill, but sometimes, just sometimes, it was best to let it sweep you along. Her last words to the sister were drowned out by the wind’s roar, but with Sofiya’s excellent hearing, she should have made them out.
“No fairy tale’s going to get me.”
The cold swept into Natalya’s body with her first inhale, searing her lungs. Her body suddenly felt as though it had been drenched in ice water.
She had to keep moving. The only alternative was death, and Sofiya was waiting. So she staggered on, raw wind stinging her face like salt searing a wound. The chill clamped her legs like irons. The rush of sympathy she always felt for the gulag prisoners who built Kolyma Highway, the only road out of the nearby city of Yatatusk, intensified painfully. While she was relatively healthy, well-fed, and dressed for the frigid climate, those men had been starving, sick, and unprepared for the savage ferocity of the cold.
The crude outhouse was shaped vaguely like a pyramid. (Sofiya, upon hearing this description, had joked that the ancient Egyptians once settled in Russia, then retreated home, away from the numbing chill.) Yanking open the door, Natalya flung herself inside, praying that her backside wouldn’t freeze to the seat. She emerged moments later, miraculously unscathed.
Natalya hurried down the streets, past the statue of Vladimir Lenin towering over the town square, hand clamped over her face to preserve precious warmth. Passing over the bridge was the best part. The frozen river below reflected the sky. Elegant curves transformed the gray railings into ellipses and hearts, swirling designs, making it the one part of town that looked like it was from a fairy tale. Hands now firmly jammed into her pockets, she started across, squishing toes further into thick boots and wiggling them frantically. Frostbite hadn’t struck her yet, but she wasn’t taking any chances.
Iona was waiting, as usual, at the counter of the one shop in town. He grinned and waved as Natalya stumbled in.
“Natalya Zima! Wonderful! I have your father’s order. Whitefish? What a treat.” It was. The residents of Oymyakon lived mainly on meat, and fish was a delicacy. Natalya returned his smile, relishing in the warmth of the room.
Iona, broad face crinkling, heaved the sack full of fish into her hands. “Be careful out there. Supposed to be one of the coldest days on record. Even crusty old Baba Yaga wouldn’t be out in this. Brr!” The girl grimaced. Another fairy tale reference? But still, if hearty Iona, who loved to brag about the time he waited out a day outside with only a yak to keep him warm, was worried about the cold, it didn’t bode well. The back of Natalya’s neck tickled.
“I should get home. Sofiya will be waiting.” She hated to leave her sister alone.
She wasn’t sure when she started to sense that something had gone awry. But by the time Natalya trudged back across the bridge, she was shivering frantically, and not just from the frosty wind. She need to get home. An ominous feeling roosted in her stomach, a cause for urgency. It didn’t make sense; she was practical. She shouldn’t be frightened by the superstitions her sister called Ghost Warnings. Maybe I’m not as sensible as everyone thinks. Maybe there’s more of Sofiya in me than I thought. Maybe … something is really wrong.
As if on cue, a foreboding wind swept through the town, snapping her hood neatly off her dark hair, whipping lightly falling flakes into a raging whirlwind. Staggering past Lenin, Natalya raced down the road, past the heated garages and dark, deserted houses. Crunching through enormous snowbanks, indigo eyes squinted with terror, she stumbled frantically toward home.
Darkness swallowed the house; there should be a light on. Even if Sofiya hadn’t needed it, she wouldn’t have turned it off. The girl’s thoughts suddenly wrenched to the nightmarish tales their mother told of goblins and wisps with icicle-sharp, frigid claws yanking her into a world of shadows and doom.
What if Sofiya had been taken?
No. Those were just stories. There’s nothing out here except ice and snow and wind.
So why was she running so fast, depleting the thin air in her lungs without stopping to take in more? Why was she flinging precious fish aside, smashing in the door, surveying the entryway with petrified eyes?
Natalya’s heart dropped away. Nothing remained of the fire but smudgy embers. The room was a dead husk, silent, gray, and cold.
Sofiya had vanished. Natalya screamed, “Sofiya! SOFIYA!” No answer.
The goblins. The monsters of ice, always lurking just out of sight. They had taken her. She was gone, whipped away into the raging blizzard.
But surely the goblins wouldn’t be so considerate as to take Sofiya’s parka, boots, and other snow gear with her. Nor would they have put out the fire and turned off the lights. And she highly doubted they would leave boot prints, leading away from the house, into the woods.
Natalya sank against the door frame. Something had gone horribly awry. But it wasn’t cold goblins. In fact, it was far worse. Her blind sister was wandering alone, at dusk, on the coldest day of winter.
Russians pride themselves on being sensible. Melancholy, perhaps, but smart. Not vapid enough to go out in the cold with no idea of when they might find warmth and shelter again.
Sofiya Zima, ever vagarious, was missing.
Natalya struggled through the storm.
No one can describe the sort of cold Natalya experienced that night. It was -58°, a cold that crept up her ribs, across her chest, through her bones, into stinging ears, numb hands, then marched boldly across eyes and mouth, freezing saliva. But it was not as unbearable as the thought of losing her sister. So she struggled through the snowbanks, following the boot prints, toward the patch of woods.
Why, why, why, pulsed the incessant drumbeat in Natalya’s mind as she staggered toward the grove. Why would Sofiya leave? She had memorized the layout of the town during her fourteen summers, but the ever-changing snowdrifts of winter slowed her footsteps and scrambled her sense of direction. Could she have headed for the woods by mistake? Why would she have left the house in the first place? Had she been trying to find Natalya? Angry that she had been forbidden to come along? Convinced some fantastical creature was calling her?
Though most children were expected to take up the mantle of sensibility and responsibility, Sofiya had long been exempted from this unwritten rule, as the town adjusted to her disability and smaller peculiarities. Being blind in the Coldest Human Settlement had almost been considered a death sentence, but Sofiya had made it with the guiding hand of her persistent parents and twin sister. She hadn’t done anything this foolish for so long.
Is this my fault? What if I lose her? Where is she?
Not among the trees, Natalya soon discovered. The bootprints continued on, toward the great sheets of ice in the distance, rising up like mountains, heading north. This was madness. If Sofiya had been out as long as her sister feared, she could already be gone.
Natalya keep going. The cold clamped around her waist and legs, until it was impossible to bend either. Her feet were blurry, wobbling weights. The luxurious coat she loved so much slowly crystallized, forming a tessellation she couldn’t quite make out. Ice coated her lips, her tongue. Her hands and arms gradually numbed.
Natalya’s mind drifted to heat and warmth, to singing with her family, smiling politely at Iona’s off-color jokes, delicious meat, a sparkling Christmas tree, the roaring fire, Sofiya’s small frame against hers.
Sofiya. Her beautiful, funny, sweet sister, the angel Natalya loved more than anything. From the moment two-year-old Natalya understood her sister couldn’t see, she knew her twin needed to be protected. Natalya was the perfect person for the job. She was the one who sat with Sofiya through shaking fits, who subtly turned her tears to snorting laughter, who listened to her dreamy, half-waking stories about elves and witches and goblins, who held her hand as they skated across the frozen river, laughing. Natalya held on with all her might, as though if she didn’t, Sofiya would slip away forever.
Pain stabbed her chest like an icicle now, and breathing was becoming harder, as though inhaling smoke. It reminded her of the raging bonfires the town set when they needed to dig a grave, to make the frozen ground yield. Suddenly, her entire body seemed to become boiling hot, scorching, horrifying. She fumbled to remove her gloves, hat, coat, wondering idly if they would burn a grave for Sofiya soon.
Her legs gave way, and Natalya crumpled to the slippery ground. The shock of raw ice beneath her slammed the sense back into her for a moment, enough time to reflect on the hopelessness of her plight. Lying flat on the ground, cheek pressed to the ice, snow gear scattered behind her like a gingerbread trail, hands coal-black, half-frozen tears dripped from Natalya’s eyes. Part of her knew: she was becoming dangerously frostbitten, dragged by the chill like a fish caught in a current.
And then, looking down, she choked on her own glacial saliva. In her dazed state, Natalya had lost the footprints.
NO! It was her job to keep Sofiya safe, her job to keep Sofiya alive! Natalya lurched to her feet, all rational thought shattering like a plummeting icicle. No. No. No!
Only her voice called back, echoing off the ice mountains in the distance.
Natalya’s mind contorted into a vast, icy expanse as the sensible girl slipped away forever. She ran, arms flailing, mouth open, toward the mountains. She would find her. She had to find her.
The ice shifted before her, curving from straight, spiked sheets to elaborate swirls, thorny barbs, delicate as glasswork, deadly as the night and then began to crash down, into an avalanche, barreling toward the lone girl. She sped through the grinding, cracking maze, crying for Sofiya.
And then she saw them – the goblins. Their evil silhouettes rose from the shadows, claws outstretched, and she knew that they had always been there, watching with their beetle-black eyes, waiting to pounce.
She struggled, now only clad in a jacket and boots, as the beasts’ icicle-sharp claws clutched her chest, frigid hide against her neck, gelid breath upon her mouth, all without a sound. Night fell around them, in blinding rays of violet and green and ebony. Was it really twilight, or were they falling away, into the goblins’ home world, where they would snap off her arms, head, legs like shards of ice, savoring every bite?
She couldn’t move. They were holding her burning body against the searing ice, and the cold penetrated her veins, freezing her blood, coating her eyes with thin, white frost, stealing over her soul.
Natalya’s face contorted, struggling to break free from the cage of madness, of darkened, twisted fairy tales.
Sofiya … Sofiya … her sister … her blind sister … missing ….
So why, as the white flowed smoothly over her mind as her shallow breaths faded into silence, did she see Sofiya, pale and beautiful, faraway and cold, standing just beyond the goblins, mistress of them all, clad in robes a thousand shades of sea and a crystalline crown reflected in her eerie, blind eyes? Those blue, blue eyes gazed straight into Natalya’s as though they had seen all along, as though everything had been a joke, a dream. A reflection of light and dark.
Sofiya’s pink lips quirked into a smile. She was waving, beckoning. No, welcoming. She was drawing her twin into the abyss of phantasmagoria and darkness, and Natalya could not resist.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.